In a state known for its bias against the girl child, boxing is changing gender attitudes. Avijit Ghosh travels to Bhiwani and Rohtak in Haryana to find out how medals are made

They live together in a rundown three-room house, just an Arnab Goswami shout away from the famed Bhiwani Boxing Club (BBC). There are 10 of them now. One of them, Guddan, is a daily wager’s daughter from western UP’s Baghpat district. Sonam has lost her father, and her mother toils on her farm in Churu, Rajasthan. Most others who come to train at the club are from similar disadvantaged backgrounds.

It’s a tough life for the teenaged girls. Rustling up Rs 10,000 every month for food and boarding. Taking turns to cook after gruelling practice sessions. Battling mosquitos at night because repellants are a luxury. Yet they are driven by a fierce desire to outpunch every unkind cut life throws at them. For them, boxing offers a ticket out of poverty and anonymity.

Most of them are medal winners at interschool or university meets, state-level tournaments, even national championships. And the gold-winning success of Ankushita Boro (64kg), Jyoti Gulia (51kg), Shashi Chopra (57kg), Nitu (48kg) and Sakshi Chaudhary (54kg) at the AIBA Youth World Boxing Championship in Guwahati last week has only given wings to their stubborn dreams. All but Ankushita, who is from Assam, are from Haryana. Nitu and Sakshi are, in fact, products of BBC.

In recent decades, Haryana has been the ground zero of India’s Olympic challenge, especially in wrestling and men’s boxing. The medals won by pugilist Vijender and grapplers Yogeshwar Dutt and Sakshi Malik have inspired hundreds of boys and girls in these parts. In women’s boxing, the lone Olympic medal has come from Mary Kom of Manipur. However, the exploits of Arjuna Award winner Kavita Chahal from Bhiwani are quite wellknown.

“What we are witnessing now is more enthusiasm, more numbers. When I started in 2005, I was the only girl boxer in Nimri village. Now there are at least 10,” says Chahal. BBC coach Jagdish Singh, a Dronacharya award recipient whose wards include Vijender and Akhil Kumar, has noticed a similar trend. “Five years ago, about 200 boys and 20 girls trained at BBC. Now, we have 90 boys and 28 girls. And frankly, I expect more from these girls,” says Singh.

Boxing is denting social stereotypes and changing gender attitudes in a state where khaps and patriarchy still survive, if not thrive. Chahal says that even village sarpanches now encourage girls to don the gloves. “My mother pays more attention to my diet than that of my brother and he is preparing for NDA. She says, you need it more. Tujhe boxing karni hai (You need to box). And she never asks me to do domestic chores,” says Sakshi.

“But for boxing, I would have been married off by now. Boxing has given me an opportunity to achieve something, create my own identity,” says Pooja, 20, from Duleri village. Her mother works as a labourer, her father is too ill to work. She used to live in a rented house near the club. After winning a silver in an international event in Serbia this year, she moved to the Sports Authority of India’s National Boxing Academy in Rohtak.

Fathers too are playing a vital role. Ritika Chohan, 14, a mason’s daughter and gold winner (44-46kg) in the sub-junior state meet, says her father has struggled a lot for her, much like Aamir Khan in Dangal. Ritika has three siblings. “Whatever my father earns, he spends on me,” she says.

Manoj, Sakshi’s father, owns five acres of land. He also worked as a contractor to supplement his income. “I dropped my contract work to focus on her,” he says. Nitu’s father Jai Bhagwan, is a clerk in Haryana’s vidhan sabha secretariat. “I was on leave without pay from 2013 to 2016 to help Nitu,” he says.

Haryana now desperately wants an Olympic medal winner in women’s boxing. Singh says it won’t be easy. “There’s a huge difference in standard between youth and senior levels. Success depends on how much they improve. But one thing is certain: these girls are talented and dedicated. They respect us and follow what we say,” he says.

Clearly, the Beti Khelao (Let girls play) chorus is growing stronger in conservative Haryana.

Folk dancer to fierce fighter

Rurki, Rohtak: When Jyoti Gulia first stepped into the fast and fierce world of boxing at the tender age of 12, she was torn about having to give up dancing. She was quite the hot stepper, and won school dance competitions as easily as Salman Khan pummelled baddies on screen. For months, she debated over the contending choices but boxing won.

Her first coach, Sudhir Hooda, was also her motivator. “He used to tell me, think of Mary Kom. If you train as hard and spend as many hours in the ring as her, you might become like her,”

recalls the 17-year-old.

Her family wasn’t supportive initially. But a silver medal at the 2013 National School Games made them see her potential. “When she later defeated a girl from Bhiwani (the country’s boxing mecca), we were convinced,” says her brother Sonu.

Despite her recent gold medal in the 51 kg category at the AIBA Youth World Boxing Championship, money, or rather the lack of it, remains a problem. The Gulias are marginal farmers who own a mere three acres of land.

So far, she has received Rs 50,000 and Rs 1,800 as rewards from the government. Haryana state animal husbandry minister Om Prakash Dhankar has promised a cow to each of the state’s medal winners.

Jyoti might like a little more support. She has earned a spot at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, but her target is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. An Olympic medal, the Rurki girl has heard, can transform one’s station in life. She points at her sparsely furnished home and says, “I just want to build a better home for my family.”